I interviewed Animal Collective for The Japan Times. The interview is about their experiences in Japan and their upcoming album “Centipede Hz”.
By BRIDGET HONAN
If you were out in
the woods for the Taico Club festival last weekend, you were in for a big surprise.
U.S. group Animal Collective blasted the 8,500-strong crowd in Nagano Prefecture with its own brand of experimental, acid-laced electronic beats through an imaginary hose.
If the music seemed weirder than usual, that was because the band tested out a chunk of their new album, “Centipede Hz.”
It was a highly anticipated set. Animal Collective’s members â€” Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox, Josh “Deakin” Dibb, David “Avey Tare” Portner and Brian “Geologist” Weitz â€” are so popular on the indie-music scene that the adulation can border on satire. Casual listeners have nothing on avid online-forum users, who post hundreds of comments discussing solo work and tracking the progression of new songs as they are performed at each subsequent live set by trading bootlegs, interviews and gossip.
Animal Collective last served up their sample-heavy electric pop on 2009’s “Merriweather Post Pavillion,” and considering it was almost universally acclaimed, the band now has a lot to live up to. Speaking to The Japan Times at distributor Hostess’ offices in Tokyo, Weitz admits he felt some pressure when making the album. He is also quick to note that the band’s success comes from the simple approach of just trying new things.
“Some people were maybe thrown when Josh stopped playing with us for ‘Merriweather,’ ” Weitz says. “And those first few tours just playing samplers and stuff might have been a little weird for fans who’d gotten into us through (previous albums) ‘Feels’ or ‘Strawberry Jam’ but then you know, it turned into something really great.
“As for trying to anticipate what people want out of us â€” I don’t know how we could do that.”
Fans aside, Weitz personally wants the newest Animal Collective record to be better than their last one, which is a tough feat this time around.
“I had to remind myself not to be like, ‘Well, we had that amazing success and that was enough … and now we can just coast,’ you know? It should be, ‘Make sure you feel like you did a better job on this one than you did on the last one.’ ”
“Centipede Hz” is clearly a definitive step away from “Merriweather Post Pavillion.” Part of it is the rawer, live feel that comes from the band’s desire to “sweat more.”
“We did consciously decide that ‘Merriweather’ had gotten too easy to perform by the end of its life cycle,” adds lead vocalist Portner. “We just knew there was really no danger with the samplers. We wanted to have a more live experience with it.”
Portner says the album’s live-performance influence came from the band getting together to jam properly for the first time since 2005’s “Feels.” Weitz commuted from Washington, D.C., and the rest of the band moved to Baltimore, where they grew up sharing tapes and practicing in Dibb’s mother’s barn.
The new album conveys that feeling of a homecoming â€” when everything is nostalgic but at the same time alien and unknown.
“We had so many good times growing up in Baltimore, but it’s weird to move back,” says Portner. “I moved back into a house with my girlfriend, which was right near the high school Brian and I went to, so I sort of drove those streets every day. And you know, we grew up playing at Josh’s mom’s house, which is where we wrote this record. It’s just kind of surreal to do that all over again.
“And I think for me it’s important to have a change when you’re doing something new. So it’s weird to be doing something that’s so familiar when you’re trying to work on a new album.”
Adding to the tone of familiarity is Dibb’s return. But this is an anomaly in itself; the album gets Animal Collective’s old guitar sound and also gets an unusual vocal addition with Dibb singing on the track “Wide Eyed.”
“He took a long break and toward the end of it he started writing some of his own songs and playing solo shows. He told us, ‘I have this one (track) that I’d like to bring to you guys’ and we were all psyched about it,” Portner says. “It was actually one of the first songs that we played and were like, ‘This is a song we should actually work on.’ ”
Weitz adds that “Wide Eyed” has a mechanical rhythm that suited the sound palette the band was working with.
And it’s perhaps appropriate that Japan is the first to get a taste of the recently polished “Centipede Hz” tunes (Portner was happy that the crowd at Taico Club reacted enthusiastically to the new material), given the Asian influence that underlies a portion of the album. The last track, “Amanita,” with it’s tightly winding, heavily effected guitar riffs, sounds like it could have been wrung from the flute of a snake charmer in a smoky marketplace buried deep in India â€” if it weren’t so electronic and modern.
Portner says a lot of the winding melodies may have come from days spent sifting through record-store bins in New York looking for vintage East Asian pop and folk.
“The stores will have a Japanese collection or a Vietnamese collection,” he says. “I listen to that stuff a lot.”
But it’s not just Asia that gets a nod. The Afro-beat rhythm of “Brothersport,” which saw audiences collectively blow a gasket when it was released as the third single off “Merriweather Post Pavillion,” isn’t totally discarded on “Centipede Hz.”
The tribal vibe may have waned, but the tempo remains â€” with Lennox jumping behind a full drum kit to crash and bash us through a slew of upbeat tunes.
“Noah is particular about drum sound. He doesn’t like a snare for instance. So it was just a matter of putting together a kit that we thought would be individualistic for the record.”
The result? Bongos, a big marching-band drum and a guiro. An oversized shaker instead of a high-hat also gives a Latin flair to the percussion.
“The pieces kind of correspond with a Western rock drum kit, but they’re all sort of replaced with Latin-sounding kinds of things,” Weitz says. “Then everything is effected by Noah, so it gets the spacey, alien quality we were also going for.”
That space alien quality is exactly how the band wanted the album to feel.
“It’s like being in a pod or a control room with lights and gadgets,” is how Portner describes “Centipede Hz.”
“Our tour manager who actually assisted us in the recording said it felt like being on a spaceship with a little radio and trying to catch all the radio waves that leave Earth. He said that it constantly sounds like somebody tuning a dial and then when you find something you like â€” you play it.”
While album art has yet to be released, Weitz and Portner say fans can expect to see more of the extra-terrestrial theme.
“I think it’s going to be in line with the kind of imagery that we have, the kind of radio transmission vibes,” Portner says. “My sister has been doing some video stuff for us. We did an album-announcement video â€” so that feeling more or less progressed into just a still format.”
Despite the intergalactic themes, “Centipede Hz” won’t be completely alien to Animal Collective fans. The moment it begins the listener is hit face first with crashing drums and bright, beat-driven songs spliced with slippery, underwater synth.
The lyrics are catchy, with lines such as “I like the hook” (“Mercury Man”) and “Makes me wonder why I even wrote this song” (“Monkey Riches”) likely to tickle the more ironic of the fan base. “Monkey Riches” also delivers the anthemic line “I don’t want to knock you down,” which will probably end up shouted on the dancefloors of indie clubs across Shibuya (and is a reason the track is my personal pick for the “big hit”).
The chorus of “Father Time” presents Portner at his best vocally, his cries so red raw and desperate that it’s almost painful.
“Centipede Hz” takes many of the elements of Animal Collective’s previous albums and melds them together. The psychedelic sludge of “Feels” and “Strawberry Jam” makes for a pleasant match with the dance-friendly samples of “Merriweather Post Pavillion” and the sweet folk tinges of early releases â€” making this the band’s most fully realized album to date.
“Yeah a lot of our friends have said it definitely combines stuff that we have done in a really cool way,” Portner says. “That’s always important to me, and probably to all of us â€” that things stay kind of inherently Animal Collective-esque.”
Weitz nods in agreement, “Like a totally different vibe, totally different sounds â€” but it still sounds like there’s no other band that would have made this record.”
“Centipede Hz” is scheduled to be released in Japan in September. For more information, visit www.myanimalhome.net.